Voter registration (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Voting rights advocates are beginning to wonder if the gusto to transform New York's elections embraced by state lawmakers last year -- changes many considered necessary adjustments, if still a work in progress -- will extend into the pandemic's second election cycle and the decisive New York City primaries in June.
There are already signs it has waned with the completion of the presidential election, the availability of vaccines, and new sights set on New York's full reopening. Many improvements to last year's provisions -- which included the near-universal expansion of absentee voting -- are still on the table, and some emergency measures have expired as New Yorkers gear up for another pandemic-era election.
As in the presidential election last fall, all voters will be allowed to vote absentee under a law that includes the risk of COVID-19 and other transmittable diseases as an acceptable reason to apply for a ballot.
The only piece of new absentee voting legislation both houses of the state Legislature have agreed on in 2021 would, if signed, allow voters to request ballots earlier but would create a more restrictive deadline to request a ballot, which advocates say will suppress votes.
New York City primary voters will be able to vote early in-person at assigned polling sites from June 12 through 20 and on primary day, June 22. That is also the last day absentee ballots can be postmarked or dropped off at designated sites for voting in the party primaries -- where only registered party members will have a chance to nominate candidates in a flood of competitive races, mostly on the Democratic side, including for mayor, comptroller, City Council, borough president, and more. There are several Republican primaries, including for mayor.
The last day to register to vote in the June primaries is May 28. Registered voters may file to change their address up until June 2. (The deadline for voters to switch their party enrollment has already passed.)
A final list of early voting polling locations, which may be different from voters’ assigned primary day site, is expected by a May 1 deadline, according to the New York City Board of Elections. There are far fewer early voting poll sites, with many more voters assigned to each. A bill to require an early voting site for every 25,000 voters was introduced last year but remains in committee.
June is the first citywide election to use ranked-choice voting. Voters will be able to rank up to five candidates in order of preference in each primary race on their ballot for city government positions. Those rankings will be used to redistribute ballots if no one candidate wins an outright majority of first-place votes and the elimination process begins. (See more about the ranked-choice voting process here.)
The city's Campaign Finance Board (CFB) and Board of Elections are both working to educate voters on the new method through mail and digital ads in multiple languages. The CFB is also conducting local trainings with community leaders and voters through its voter outreach arm NYC Votes, which has a $2 million ranked-choice voting advertising budget. Both agencies have information pages on their websites and the BOE will have instructional displays and palm cards in multiple languages at poll sites.
Most Democratic primary ballots will be very long this year, and voters should be aware of all the races they can vote in, as well as how to carefully fill out their ballots using ranked-choice voting.
The state's first experiment with fully-available absentee voting last year -- a change sought by voting reform advocates pre-pandemic to expand the franchise -- showed flaws in the roll-out and technicalities in the law that likely disenfranchised voters, albeit under the exceptional circumstances. State lawmakers have made few covid-related changes to elections since last year and none related to absentee voting, though a of proposals have been made in the Legislature.
Even laws to allow absentee ballots to be requested online and to be requested earlier in the election cycle, both of which remove obstacles for administrators and voters, sunset at the end of last year. Both can still be renewed before June.
The New York City and State Boards of Elections are both maintaining absentee application portals on their respective websites, pursuant to an executive order, despite the law's expiration.
In February, Governor Cuomo signed legislation to reduce petition signature requirements for candidates to get on the ballot under the notion of trying to limit the spread of COVID-19. He also signed legislation eliminating “opportunity to ballot,” which allows petitioners to take the ballot line of a party when no candidate is nominated in the primaries, which is common for smaller parties.
The only absentee ballot measure to pass both houses is one that allows ballots to be requested more than 30 days before an election. But the bill also creates a more restrictive deadline to apply, moving it from seven to 15 days before the election day. Advocates are urging the governor to veto it and for the state to pass a similar version without the tighter deadline restriction. State lawmakers say it is necessary in order to follow postal service guidelines and requests from the State Board of Elections.
"We recommend that jurisdictions immediately communicate and advise voters to request ballots at the earliest point allowable but no later than 15 days prior to the election date," a United States Postal Service (USPS) spokesperson told Gotham Gazette last August. Only one state, Rhode Island, has an absentee application deadline more than 12 days before an election.
"Although the Legislature is considering many progressive absentee voting measures that would expand voting access and ensure all voters are able to vote in a way that is most safe and convenient for them, [this bill] would have the opposite impact and seriously limit a voter’s ability to request an absentee ballot," wrote the League of Women Voters of New York State, in a memo of opposition to legislation, which they called "regressive."
"Instead of rolling back absentee access as so many other states are doing, we are counting on the two houses to work together to improve the system, based on Election 2020 resiliency needs and the many significant issues from past elections that needed fixing during more normal times," wrote Jarret Berg, co-founder of the reform group Vote Early NY, in an email to Gotham Gazette.
Advocates have suggested other practical changes in addition to passing certain existing bills. At the very least, Berg said, the 15-day cutoff should not apply to online applications (should they be in place for the primaries), which don't require mail delivery.
"Marginalized voters and those who tune in closer to an election and want to exercise their rights will be impacted by this roll back," Berg wrote. "The absentee request option will cut off just at the point in the cycle when they wish to avail themselves of it."
Other Proposed Voting Changes
Some legislation has been percolating in Albany, but what will make it across the finish line before June remains a question. Spokespeople for Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, all Democrats, did not return requests for comment for this article.
In January, the State Senate passed a package of bills to address problems with New York’s first go at mass absentee voting that arose last year. They included measures to create designated absentee ballot dropboxes and an absentee ballot tracker, and to expedite the mailing and counting of ballots. It also included a new online absentee ballot request system and the two bills related to an earlier request period, including the one with the more restrictive 15-day deadline. Only the latter has also passed the Assembly.
One of the Senate bills would require ballots to be counted when a voter makes errant markings, as long as their intent is "unambiguous." Similar legislation to ensure ballots are counted even when un- or partially-sealed, has remained in committee. These mistakes should at least be made "curable" under a law passed last year to allow voters to correct certain mistakes on the ballot envelope, advocates say, but they have not been.
The Senate also passed a potential state constitutional amendment to allow absentee voting without an excuse, making absentee voting open to all. Absentee voting is already universal this year because the Legislature and governor expanded the definition of an illness to include the risk of spreading a disease. That law, intended to give a previous executive order more permanency and extend it to potential future disasters, expires at the end of this year with no indication that it will be renewed. A separate amendment to allow voters to register on Election Day also passed the Senate. Each would need to pass the Assembly and be approved by voters in a referendum, which could happen as early as this fall, before they can take effect.
Let New York Vote, a statewide coalition, commended the Senate package in a letter to Cuomo and legislative leaders but sought more reforms to address disenfranchisement that occurred in Oneida County in the race for Congressional District 22 between then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Brindisi and his challenger, Rep. Claudia Tenney. In that race, the county board of elections failed to process at least 2,400 ballots in time for the general election. The letter called for the Oneida County BOE to be removed, registration processing reporting, and more staff and resources from the state.
With uncertainty around what legislation could move through the Assembly and which might get the governor's signature, the period to request an absentee ballot in the June New York City primaries is in flux. If nothing else passes the Assembly or is signed by Cuomo, voters will be able to request absentee ballots from the Board of Elections by mail, email, or fax through June 15. In-person applications will be accepted at BOE offices until June 21.
Absentee ballot tracking is a priority for Assembly election chair Latrice Walker, according to a spokesperson. So are the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York -- a bill to create more actionable offenses for protected classes, demographic data reporting, and certain pre-clearance requirements -- and a voting machine security law to ensure ballots cannot be marked after they are cast. There is a chance ballot tracking and the Voting Rights Act could advance in the Assembly before the primaries, Walker’s spokesperson told Gotham Gazette, "but she is still a part of a larger body."
Last year, Cuomo signed an executive order requiring the state to pay absentee ballot postage in the June 2020 presidential primaries. A bill to make that permanent was introduced after the order expired last year but has not gained traction in either house.
A bill to restore voting rights to people on parole passed in the Assembly Wednesday after passing the Senate earlier this year. The bill needs Cuomo's signature to become law. People on parole, who are disproportionately Black and Latino, are currently eligible for a conditional pardon from the governor that would re-enfranchise them, but advocates say the bill would make the measure permanent and less discretionary, and would include more proactive education and registration efforts.
Another bill still in committee would expand the franchise to people in prison, but without a constitutional amendment it could be subject to a court challenge if passed, which is unlikely this session.
The good government groups also want to see a bill pass to require polling sites on college campuses with 300 or more registered voters. “College students have one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country," wrote Tom Speaker, an election analyst with Reinvent Albany, in an email. "Passing this legislation can help get more young people to exercise their most fundamental right.”
Recently-passed automatic voter registration, which requires certain state agencies to register voters unless they opt-out, does not begin to go into effect until 2023 and will not be fully implemented until 2025.
"Since the political balance of power in Albany shifted in 2019, New York has taken several steps to modernize its antiquated election infrastructure," wrote Berg, referring to the Democratic-control of the State Legislature and Executive Chamber. "Early Voting and Automatic Voter Registration are two of the more transformative measures enacted. However, the pace of progress remains slow and incremental. Americans may be surprised to learn that the voting wars rage on, including even in places like Albany where some insiders have remained generally resistant to democracy and ethics reforms for decades."
Berg and others have suggested the state return to proactively mailing out absentee ballot applications to registered voters, which was done last June under a one-time executive order. Another proposal is to allow ballots be emailed to voters if they have not received them in the few days before an election day.